From the frying pan to the panhandle

Mob Rule: Part 38

Jack learns that brokering political deals in Florida means biting into fat slabs of bad meat

By John Armstrong

So that’s what we did. When we got to Florida Bobby called Wallace and arranged a conference in Albany, Georgia for the following day, the closest reasonably sized city to both camps.

I didn’t go along with them and I confess I didn’t argue hard for the privilege. I’d seen enough of Wallace, Conner, and the “superior white race” and so far as I was concerned, I’d be just as pleased if the next time I saw them it was to identify the bodies. Our two diplomats left with a driver around 10 a.m. and expected to be back for supper. While they were gone I thought I’d take Vanessa to the beach and let the sun bake the stress away. It was already over 80 degrees.

mob rules victor bonderoff illustrationI found Sydney drinking coffee and asked if he knew how to get to the beach and he looked at me like I’d already been in the sun too long. I was in my shorts and sandals, a towel and a book under my arm, expecting we could just walk the few blocks.

It turns out Tallahassee doesn’t have a beach, which is unsurprising really as it’s pretty much bang in the center of the Florida peninsula and the closest real beach is about 90 miles away, on the Mexican Gulf Coast, about three hours there and back. It was still dark when we’d arrived and I just assumed Florida was all sun and sand.

I took my sunglasses off and I imagine I looked pretty disappointed. I’m a New York boy, after all. Any time I can sit on a beach with palm trees, I feel like I’m winning the battle.

“Cheer up,” Sydney said. “Tallahassee is about half Jewish, and two things we know are Chinese food and swimming pools.”

“Really,” Vanessa asked. “Why is that?”

“Because the ocean has sharks,” Sydney said. “Or did you mean, why so many Jews here? Because it has the same weather as Miami and it’s cheaper.”

“Because there’s no beach,” I said.

He said, “Not much gets by you does it, kid” and went up to the cashier to get a paper. An hour later we were poolside at the Beth Israel Community Centre, which was no more luxurious than your standard palace. If you raised an eyebrow poolboys raced to bring you your heart’s desire, which in my case was cold beer and pastrami on rye, with proper dill pickles.

And thank god for dark sunglasses; as crazy as I am about Vanessa there was no way to ignore the swarm of beautiful women around the pool. There’s a high incidence of pure, undeniable gorgeousness in the Jewish female population. It makes you wish the Old Testament were illustrated.

We took turns rubbing oil into each other and every half-hour or so I roused myself enough to dive in, rinse the sweat off, and swim across the pool and back to my chaise lounge. I could see Sydney under a cloud of smoke at the card table.  There were regular eruptions of Yiddish, loud laughter, and expressions of disgust at the cards and it struck me that the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians have more in common than most of them realize: the same oversize emotions, generosity, devotion to family, love of sharing food and drink, the same history of hardship and suffering, though no one could argue against the Jews being in first place there. It’s difficult to believe that any people could be so readily identifiable as belonging to a nation, and that place not actually exist anywhere on the planet. It’s as if there were no Italy or Ireland for us to have come from.

And thank god for dark sunglasses; as crazy as I am about Vanessa there was no way to ignore the swarm of beautiful women around the pool. There’s a high incidence of pure, undeniable gorgeousness in the Jewish female population. It makes you wish the Old Testament were illustrated.

The Negroes, too, had all those traits, judging by those I’d met down here, and a history of hard times second only to the Jews. Based on the evidence, it seemed likely that if I met a Japanese, an Arab, a Gypsy, or a Hottentot for all I knew I’d find them to be much the same.

This may not be much of a discovery to students of philosophy but these weren’t things I’d thought much about before this.

That was about all the heavy lifting my brain could stand in this kind of weather so I left Vanessa on her lounge sleeping under a giant hat, took another lap, and went over to the card game.

They were playing Canasta, which is a variation of rummy with two decks of cards played with pairs of partners, so I suppose it’s related to bridge, too. The object is to collect and lay down runs or melds – numerical sequences, or sets of kings or nines or whatever, and to not get caught with too many cards in your hand if the other guy goes ‘out.’ Further than that, I have not a clue. There were four of them playing and at least that many watching and kibbutzing, which is Yiddish for “busting balls.” It was hard to pick up any of the finer points of the game with the volume of insults and jokes being sprayed around the table.

Finally, a man on the other team threw his last cards down with a yell of triumph and Sydney was caught just after picking up the discard pile. He added up his hand on a pad, shook his head, and reached for his wallet. They must have been bloodthirsty stakes; he laid down several hundred dollars to much laughter.

“A fine way to treat a guest,” Sydney said. “That was the money for my mother’s operation, a lot you guys care. Ah well, Gam zu l’tovah.” They switched seats and dealt the cards out again and Sydney sat down by me.

‘What was that you said, when you got up,” I asked him.

“What, Gam zu l’tovah?” He took off his cap and wiped his head. “It means, ‘This is all for the best.’”

“Why would you say that when you’d just dropped a couple of hundred on a card game? I thought Jews loved their money the way Sicilians do.”

“Oh, we do, believe me. It comes from a rabbi named Nachum Ish Gamzu, centuries ago. He was very famous because no matter what happened, he said, ‘This too is for the best.’ Even at the end of his life, when his hands and legs were cut off and his body was covered in boils and sores, he trusted in God that it was all part of a greater plan, even if it was not so enjoyable for him personally.

“When we say it now, it’s with resignation that life is hard, but also with trust that things get better, though maybe not soon or in our lifetime.”

He waved his hand for a poolboy and said,  “You maybe have to be a Jew to really get it. I mean, given our history, we have to believe that, or else how could we stand it?”

 Even at the end of his life, when his hands and legs were cut off and his body was covered in boils and sores, he trusted in God that it was all part of a greater plan, even if it was not so enjoyable for him personally.

About midafternoon we said our goodbyes and went back to the hotel to shower the suntan lotion off and have a nap. When we got up again, Lyndon and Bobby were back so we went up to the war room to get the report. Even though it had been a mission of conciliation, we’d all been a little tense about them going back there.

Lyndon was in a chair with his boots off and his stocking feet up on the bed, a glass balanced on his paunch. Bobby was sitting at the desk writing. We found seats and Sydney said, “So?”

Bobby looked over and Lyndon nodded for him to go first.

“It didn’t take long,” he said. “They knew what they wanted and we argued it and then gave in on most of it. They were in the catbird seat and we let them enjoy the position. We argued and countered and then we folded. After that it was all backslaps and handshakes and shit-eating grins.” He took a drink, which didn’t appear to wash the taste out of his mouth entirely.

The negotiation boiled down to one thing, really. When the Kennedys assumed the presidency the Confederated States would be recognized as a sovereign entity, and no law, ordinance, regulation, or directive passed by the federal government would be recognized as enforceable below the Mason-Dixon line.

Now, forgetting the fact that they were already their own creation, doing much as they pleased under the Bosses’ rule, this was still a very big deal: the first act of a restored federal government would be to formally recognize an entire region as a separate country. A hundred years earlier the worst war in our history had been fought to prevent such a thing. Now it had been won by a half-dozen men in their shirtsleeves around a hotel room table, without firing a shot. Assuming the revolution was successful, of course, and that looked slightly more likely with the Rebs on board.

What was the next major point of discussion in the negotiations? I’ll let you guess and the hint is – what do you think of when you think of government?

That’s right – they argued over taxes, and whether the Confederacy would pay any to Washington at all. The South said ‘none’ and our boys argued there was still a balance owing for services rendered all these many years. It was a divorce where no one cared who fed the children or where they lived so long as the other one paid for the gardener. In the end they came to no real agreement except that they would “continue to negotiate in good faith.” I laughed out loud at that phrase and got a dirty look from Bobby.

The other thing they spent time on? Whether the South would supply troops if Washington went to war, and vice-versa.

“Can you imagine a country run by these guys,” Bobby said. I was thinking the exact same thing about him and my grandfather and Sydney. I really didn’t know how much more of this I could take.

“The first thing they’ll do is ‘nationalize’ everything from power plants and telephone lines to railways and airlines. Even then, the South can’t possibly survive economically. And within six months we’ll be at war again,” Lyndon said.

“The wouldn’t reinstitute slavery?” I asked.

“No, they don’t need to,” Lyndon said. “They’ve improved it to the point you don’t actually have to own a man to completely control him. Just pass enough laws taking away his rights, saying where he can and can’t work or live, and you’ve got him just as sure as if you put shackles on him. Economical, too – no need to feed and house him, either.”

Bobby shuffled some papers together and took off his glasses. I could tell he was tired if he was wearing them.

Lyndon drank off the last inch in his glass and got up heavily.

“I’m going to go take a hot shower and scrub myself with a wire brush.”

Vanessa and I followed him out into the hall and stood at the elevator.

“Lyndon, there’s one thing I don’t understand.”

“What’s that, son?”

It had been bothering me since our coffee shop summit meeting, that when Bobby and Sydney were pressured into telling the same lies they’d always been ready to tell the league, they acted like they’d bitten into bad meat. I could not for the life of me understand it.

“It’s human nature, Jack.” he sounded absolutely weary and when he turned to face me he looked a thousand years old and as if he’d had bad news on every day of it. “In order to do their work, men like your uncle have to believe their own bullshit and they get so good at it when they have to do something they can’t square with their conscience they just change how they remember it.

“But they just plain can’t stand to lose even if it means winning in the long run, so when he gets backed into a corner and made to do something he planned to do all along, he gets ornery and mulish. There’s no sense to it other than that.

“I will say one thing — it made the Rebs swallow it more easily. Bob looked like he was selling off his children.”

“And how did it go down with you,” I asked.

“Not near as easy. I find myself going along with things I can’t stomach for the sake of the good I can maybe do down the line, and it’s the same kind of logic he and Sydney use.” He let out a deep exhalation, too heavy to be called a sigh, more a signifier of moral exhaustion.

“I have come to loathe the idea of expediency and the long-term results of that kind of self-delusion. I believe it diminishes a man greatly, and by the time he gets to where he can do the good he planned to, there may be nothing left of him.”

“Lyndon,” I said, pushing the button for my floor, “I think it’s time you and I had a drink. Possibly several.”

Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, December 26, 2015



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